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Paris - Baku: plane or train?
17 July 2007 Hervé Bonnaveira

A journey by land richer in experience than an 8-hour flight

Shaken but not stirred after 15 days of trains and buses, we feel better prepared for cycling across the central Asian wilds

JPEG - 80.8 kb
Welcome to my dolmus (Turkish minibus)

"Pointless" - is the unsurprising reaction of the Easyjet-setting crew; "interesting... ," Eurostar regulars will say, while the few slow-travellers among us will find it "brilliant." In a world where time is money, who would dream of taking 15 days to cross a meagre 6000km? That’s the time it took us to make it from Paris to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, by train and bus, with a few short stops in between. Let me explain the reasons for our choice.

Flying beats all other forms of transport in terms of pollution - so not quite the model choice for a sustainable development project. On average, a plane emits at least 10 times as much climate warming gases as a train (per passenger kilometre - Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report). Aircraft emit greenhouse gases such as CO2 and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in high atmospheric regions, rendering their impact on the climate several times stronger than ground sources. And while planes’ current greenhouse contribution stands at around 3.5% of the global total, the figure is growing exponentially, with passenger numbers expected to double over the next 15 years (IPCC, 2007). The unfair economic advatages that airlines benefit from don’t help - no fuel tax, direct and hidden subsidies.

The train-and-bus solution, apart from being greener, is also the preferred option of those travelling off the beaten track - and for a good reason. Transport by land brings continuity and coherence between departure and arrival, making contact with the country and the locals easier. Our passage through Turkey - a relatively developed muslim country that is secular, democratic and very much turned towards Europe - was a real West-East transition. Crossing over into the young republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Europe felt much further away culturally as well as economically, and the Soviet herritage manifested itself through ever-present corruption and fatalism. While muslim Azerbaijan seems the little brother of Turkey both in terms of culture, language and cuisine, christian Georgia takes refuge in nationalism - but still looks and feels like Turkey in many respects. Instead of this gradual transition, the airline passenger is brutally catapulted into a new reality.

Money-wise, European trains are expensive - but not more so than a flight over the same distance, not counting the stop-overs of course. Prices - especially for travellers with bicycles and other non-regulatory objects - can vary in accordance with the passenger’s age, frequency and period of travel, and often also with the conductor’s mood. The price of the Inter-rail "pass" we took is also misleading - while we paid 250 euro per person to travel on any train during a period of 10 days, this did not include obligatory reservations - between 10 and 30 euros per person. Adding to this the price of Azeri and Turkish visas (Herve exempted, being French), the total cost of the cross-European journey came to 550 euros per person - the price of a Paris - Baku flight, minus the stop-overs and adventures...

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